Peanut Butter: A Lament

Lest you think everything is peachy-keen here on the food front here, let me clarify one thing: some foods that I consider staples are frustratingly hard to find, not to mention painfully expensive once you do find them.  Foremost among these items is cheese, which remains a sore subject for me.  However, what I’d like to talk about today is peanut butter, something I’m sure many American ex-pats miss as much as I do

When I first arrived in Japan and was feeling particularly homesick, I ventured to the grocery store in search of some familiar, trusty PB.  What I ended up buying was “peanut cream” (ピーナッツクリーム), a pale, gooey, heavily sweetened and cornstarch-thickened affair vaguely reminiscent of wood glue in both color and texture.  This was a mistake I would not repeat.

Peanuts themselves are also easy to come by, as they are a popular snack to pair with beer (as an aside, they are especially delicious when mixed with the small, spicy rice crackers called kaki no tane, or “persimmon seeds”).  But still, peanuts do not equal peanut butter.  That is, unless one is inclined to spend an hour pounding roasted peanuts into paste with a suribachi (Japanese mortar and pestle), which I did briefly consider.

During the first week or two of my stay here, I eventually wandered into an “import” store, which sold everything from American baking powder to Italian pasta to Thai coconut milk.  As I wandered the aisles, ogling overpriced German chocolates and Spanish olives, I came across something truly extraordinary.  Lo and behold, arranged lovingly in wicker baskets underneath a shelf of ¥700 French jams, lay small jars of Skippy, of both the creamy and “super chunk” varieties.  And they were on sale, to boot!  I was shell-shocked, ecstatic.  Now, here’s the killer: each jar was about ¥300 (roughly $3.50).  But they were on sale!  And normally would have cost at least ¥400!  Did I buy one?  You bet.  My only regret was that I didn’t buy more than one, because I finished that jar in an embarrassingly short span of time.

Now, every day I ask myself, “Oh, why didn’t you savor it more judiciously?  Why didn’t you just buy four jars at once?”  Ultimately, though, I’ve decided that agonizing over peanut butter while in Japan is just plain foolish.  Here I am, in a country with its own vibrant and varied food culture, and I’m upset that I can’t find cheap peanut butter?  True, it can be a comforting reminder of home, but I’ve concluded that it’s simply not worth the trouble, nor the monetary expense.  Besides, who needs peanut butter when there’s kinako cream?  Unlike “peanut cream”, this is a wonderful product, and a fairly new addition to the world of Japanese snack foods.  It’s a smooth, buttery puree of kinako (roasted soy bean powder) and other flavorings, like chocolate or black beans.  I’m quite partial to the black bean variety – the marriage of sweet, toasty notes from the kinako with the earthiness of the beans actually resembles the flavor profile of peanut butter.  A generous smear of this delightful stuff on a crisp, juicy Fuji apple makes a perfect afternoon snack.  Then again, if I happen to see Skippy again, would I buy it?  Of course, but I won’t hold my breath.

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3 thoughts on “Peanut Butter: A Lament

  1. Emma, I went through the same thing, though they do have decent domestic peanut butter that you can occasionally find here, but only creamy. The most frequent food request for people going to America is “crunchy peanut butter” (still, some larger stores occasionally stock import peanut butter but most of my friends don’t seem to know that).

    Anyway, this reminds me of something I learned in high school: it is impossible to get a German person to eat peanut butter. It’s like trying to get an American to eat dog, or frogs’ legs. I can’t quite think of other things that we have that strong aversion to, but really, Germans think the very concept of peanut butter is disgusting for reasons I haven’t ever fully understood (Dutch people, to the best of my knowledge, have no quarrel with peanut butter). Turkish people will not drink tea with milk. Ever. Nor will they believe that anyone could actually like it. The idea seems repugnant to them. What common American foods would you have to pay daring Japanese people to eat?

    • Lucky! All the PB here is imported and sold in tiny jars. When I was in Hong Kong, I actually succumbed and bought a normal-sized container to “smuggle” into Japan. (I say smuggle because the Japanese customs officers were very carefully checking all the luggage that had arrived from HK, with good reason I’m sure. I wonder if they were suspicious of my random jar of PB?) I can understand why PB could seem revolting to some people – it may have to do with the texture, although it’s not all that different from Nutella.

      The Japanese palate is more expansive than most people realize, although people tend to be averse to foods that are very spicy or too fatty/rich. I suspect the “bacon in everything” craze that’s been sweeping the States lately would be unappealing to most Japanese people. I find it pretty weird myself. I mean, bacon in cocktails? Ew!

      (Oh, and in some parts of the the States people do eat frogs’ legs! http://www.saveur.com/article/Kitchen/Wild-and-Refined I’m sure it’s not very common though…)

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